Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Gods and mortals from ancient Dion in New York

Saturday, March 26th, 2016

Nestled in the northern foothills of Mount Olympus, the ancient town of Dion was perfectly situated for sacrifices to the gods. It was a lot easier to carry animals to the base of the mountain than to climb its nearly 10,000-foot heights. The first known altar to Zeus Olympios was built in Dion in the 10th century B.C.

The small town grew into a prominent city under the Macedonians who revered it as the center of their religion. In the late 5th century B.C., Macedonian King Archelaus I founded the Olympian Games there, a yearly festival of the arts and athletic contents in honor of Olympian Zeus and his daughters the Muses. Top athletes and artists flocked to the festival from all over Greece. The kings of Macedon made sacrifices at the altar to ring in every new year (the end of September in the Macedonian calendar), celebrated their military victories and invoked the protection and support of Olympian Zeus before setting out on new adventures. Philip II of Macedon celebrated his successful siege and destruction of Olynthos in 348 B.C. at Dion. His son Alexander the Great sacrificed to the gods there before taking his conquering armies East. He also imported the worship of Isis from Egypt to Dion.

The strong association with Alexander the Great served Dion well under the Roman emperors. Octavian founded a colony there in 31 B.C., and later emperors in the 2nd and 3rd centuries lent it their support. In the waning days of the empire, Dion was still prominent as the seat of a bishopric. Bishops of Dion took part in important church synods (Serdike in 343 A.D. and Ephesos in 431 A.D.), but at the end of the 5th century the city fell to the armies of Ostrogoth King Theodoric the Great and it never recovered. It gradually lost importance and population due to a series of earthquakes and floods from the river Vaphyras. By the 10th century it was an abandoned ruin.

The ruins of Dion were identified as the ancient sacred city of the Macedonians in 1806, but organized excavations didn’t begin until 1928. There was a 30-year lapse in archaeological exploration between 1931 and 1960. Since 1973, Dr. Dimitrios Pandermalis has led excavations at the site, returning every summer with a team of archaeologists, students and volunteers from the modern village to brave the oppressive heat and humidity. They have expanded the excavation area considerably to include the ancient sanctuaries, graveyards, tumulus burials and the town center. Spared development, reconstruction and the potentially destructive fumbling of early archaeologists, Dion has proved an archaeological treasure trove. Thanks to its wetlands environment at the base of the mountain between two rivers, Dion’s remains have been well preserved by water and mud layers.

All that mud and water is no picnic for the archaeological team to have to dig through, but it’s been worth it. Excavators have unearthed the remains of sanctuaries dedicated to Olympian Zeus, Zeus Hypsistos, Demeter, Isis and Asclepius. There’s a Hellenistic theater, a Great Baths complex, a partially preserved 2nd century A.D. Roman theater, a Greek and Roman wall, a 5th century Christian basilica and several Roman-era villas, most notably the Villa of Dionysus discovered in 1987.

The Villa of Dionysus was built in the second half of the 2nd century as a complex with an elegant home, a shrine to Dionysus, a bathhouse, a library and storefronts. Archaeologists discovered a great many ancient artworks: sculptures, decorative elements from expensive furniture, and mosaics of exceptional quality. Among the most prized sculptures is a group of four seated men representing Epicurean philosophers, three students and one teacher identifiable by his bearded adulthood and the open scroll he holds. The heads of the students were recarved in the 3rd century AD to give them portrait features, possibly to make them look like members of the family who lived in the house at the time. Other artworks found in the house include a hauntingly beautiful portrait of Agrippina the Elder, mother of Nero, and a glorious 100 square meter floor mosaic in the banquet hall depicting the Epiphany of Dionysus.

The mosaic is one of the finest of its kind and is believed to be a copy of a lost Hellenistic painting. The villa being in ruins, there has been great concern about preserving the mosaic. The authorities built a custom addition to the museum to house the mosaic in ideal conservation conditions, but money was hard to come by. That changed last year when the Onassis Foundation funded the removal of the mosaic from the villa to the new building. Here’s a behind the scenes view of the detachment, transportation and conservation of the Epiphany of Dionysus mosaic:

Now Dion is paying the Onassis Foundation back in the most wonderful way: by loaning the Onassis Cultural Center in New York City more than 90 artifacts — mosaics, sculptures, jewelry, medical implements, terracotta vessels, glassware — dating from the 10th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D. Many of these pieces are in the US for the first time, and they are absolutely stunning. There’s the central panel of the Dionysus mosaic and several of the masques around it, the sculptures of the four philosophers, that beautiful portrait of Agrippina, an Iron Age spiral brooch with textile fragments still attached to it, statues and stele of the gods. There are utilitarian artifacts as well, including a copper oil lamp decorated with the head of a panther and a 1st century B.C. copper speculum, which looks remarkably similar to the modern version.

The Gods and Mortals at Olympus exhibition opened March 24th and runs through June 18th. They’ve really gone all out to put together a spectacular and content-rich show with cross-generational appeal. You can amble through the artifacts of Dion conversing with philosopher Simon Critchley, or lure your museum-resistant friends to the Museum Hacks series “for people who don’t like museums.” There’s even a videogame where children (and grown-ups!) can become the archaeologist excavating Dion. Entrance to the exhibition is free.


Torlonia collection to see the light after 40 years in the basement

Thursday, March 17th, 2016

One of the most important private collections of ancient sculpture in the world hasn’t been on display in four decades. In fact, it really hasn’t been on public display since the 19th century. The Torlonia family’s collection of antiquities, 620 world-class Greek, Roman and Etruscan statues and sarcophagi, has been favorably compared without hyperbole to the ancient sculpture collections of the Capitoline and Vatican Museums, and the Italian government has tried for years to craft an agreement with the family that would allow these unique treasures to be seen by the public. On Tuesday, March 15th, Culture Minister Dario Franceschini announced that the long-sought agreement has been reached and about 60-90 of the most important pieces in the Torlonia collection will go on display in 2017. The details haven’t been worked out yet, but the likely venue will be the Palazzo Caffarelli Clementino on the Capitoline Hill.

The Torlonia family are new, by Roman standards. The founder was Marino Torlonia, born Marin Tourlonias in Auvergne, France, in 1725. He moved to Rome and became the manservant of powerful Neopolitan cardinal Troiano Acquaviva d’Aragona, best remembered today for having employed Giacomo Casanova in 1744 only to dismiss him when he was discovered hiding a teenaged runaway in the cardinal’s residence on the Piazza di Spagna. Acquaviva died in 1747, leaving Marino Torlonia an inheritance which he used to set himself up as a textile merchant.

The business was successful and Marino parlayed some of his income into a small lending concern. When he helped Pope Pius VI with some pesky financial matters, he was granted the title of duke. It was his son Giovanni Raimondo Torlonia who took both businesses and ran with them. He made savvy deals with the French occupiers under Napoleon and when the French troops left after the Treaty of Paris in 1814, Giovanni was flush with cash, cash the old noble families distinctly lacked. The Banco Marino Torlonia was delighted to loan them money with their estates and furnishings as collateral.

Pope Pius VII granted Giovanni Raimondo Torlonia a princely title in 1814, the first of many. Just two generations removed from Marin Tourlonias, the Torlonia family was one of the richest in Rome, as ennobled as it could be and, thanks to advantageous marriages, related to some of the greatest noble houses of the city — the Colonna, Orsini and Borghese. When those loans went into default, the Torlonia family accumulated lands and artworks by the cartload, including pieces from the Orisini, Cesarini and Caetani-Ruspoli families and a prized 17th century collection of ancient sculptures from the Giustiniani family.

Not that they needed the loan collateral to make out like bandits. After the upheaval of the Napoleonic period, many noble families were compelled to sell their properties and private collections. The great collection of dedicated antiquarian Cardinal Alessandro Albani was sold along with his Roman palace, Villa Albani, to the Chigi family who in turn sold it to the Torlonia. Giovanni also bought more than a thousands pieces from the estate of sculptor and restorer Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, among which were important sculptures Cavaceppi had acquired from the collections of the Savelli, Cesi and Pio da Carpi families.

Their extensive property holdings proved invaluable sources of ancient statuary as well. Draining swamps and developing lands, the Torlonia unearthed antiquities hand over fist, particularly from the man-made Roman harbour of Portus, the town of Fiumicino where Leonardo da Vinci Airport now stands, and the ancient Etruscan cities of Vulci and Cerveteri

In 1859, Giovanni’s son Alessandro founded a private museum in one of their palaces on the Via della Lungara. The sculptures, including about a hundred Roman portrait busts from the late Republican and Imperial period so prized many scholars consider them superior to the busts in the Capitoline and Vatican Museums, were installed in the 77 rooms of the palace. Already by the 1870s the public was not allowed inside the museum. I can’t confirm whether they ever were, for that matter. Alessandro Torlonia granted access only to his aristocratic friends and occasionally to experts. The collection was catalogued repeatedly in the 1870s and 1880s. Some of the catalogues were illustrated with photographs, among the first in Italy to be printed with pictures instead of drawings. (here’s a text-only example from 1881)

In the 1960s and 1970s, the collection was gradually packed up and stored, perhaps in other Torlonia properties, perhaps in the basement of the old museum. Another Alessandro Torlonia, great-grandson of the museum’s founder, got permission from the government to repair the roof, but those repairs proved to be a smokescreen for an illegal subdivision of the palace into 90 tiny apartments. A 1979 judgement from Italy’s supreme court of appeals found that the sculptures had been stored in “narrow, insufficient, dangerous spaces [...] removed from the museum [...] crammed together in unbelievable fashion, leaned against each other without care for consistency or history.” The court ruled that the private owner should pay a fine to the state equal to the value lost or diminished by this dire, careless treatment of cultural patrimony. That ruling was never enforced.

With tension between the state and the family, the past 40 years have seen many long negotiations go nowhere. Finally the parties have managed to come together, although the vast majority of the Torlonia sculptures will not be on display, at least not right away. I hope this is just a first step. None of these works should be gathering dust in basements.

The history of this collection, how it was amassed from acquisitions, debt collections and excavations on Torlonia properties, may be a central theme of the first exhibition. It’s particularly relevant to the Torlonia collection as opposed to some of the older ones built gradually by noble families over the course of centuries. The way entire collections were absorbed by the Torlonia makes for a unique perspective into the history of antiquities collection in Rome, with built-in organizational divisions, like, for instance, the pieces from the Cavaceppi collection in one section, the pieces from the Giustiniani collection in another. The sculptures unearthed on Torlonia estates could be in another section.

Again, it’s still in the early stages, but the Ministry is hoping to make this a traveling exhibition. After the Roman show, the treasures of the Torlonia collection will go to top museums in Europe and the United States. Eventually a permanent place will be found for it back home in Rome.

Gardener finds Denmark’s oldest figure of Christ

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

Landscape gardener Dennis Fabricius Holm picked up his first metal detector just two and a half months ago. It was his son’s, a Christmas present he’d gotten years before and never used. Holm fished it out of the basement and took it to the empty field next door to his home in the village of Aunslev on the Danish island of Funen to do a few hours of scanning every Friday afternoon. He found some buttons and small coins, nothing to write home about.

Last Friday, March 11th, Holm found something to write history books about. In an area of the field he hadn’t scanned before, his machine alerted him to a metallic object not made of iron. A mere four inches under the surface he found a little gold pendant 3.5 centimeters (1.4 inches) wide and 4 centimeters (1.6 inches) high, weighing 14 grams. The artifact’s fine filigree showed through the caked dirt. Excited about his find, Holm posted pictures of it on a Facebook page for Danish metal detector enthusiasts and was quickly deluged with congratulations.

He contacted Malene Refshauge Beck, an archaeologist and curator at the East Funen Museums, who identified it as a crucifix from the first half of the 10th century. That makes it the oldest figure of Christ ever discovered in Denmark. Before this find, the Christ figure engraved on the largest Jelling Stone, a massive runestone raised by Harald Bluetooth in around 965 A.D., was the oldest known in Denmark. It was a fitting record for a stone whose runic inscription reads: “King Harald bade this monument be made in memory of Gorm his father and Thyra his mother, that Harald who won for himself all Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christians.”

The pendant could be dated with such precision because it is almost identical to a pendant found in Sweden. The first crucifix of this design was unearthed in 1879 from grave 660 in a Viking cemetery at Birka, an 8th century town about 20 miles west of Stockholm. The earliest Christian missionaries who went to Sweden in the 9th century were centered in Birka. The town was destroyed in the 10th century and never rebuilt. Its ruins were rediscovered by an entomologist, Hjalmar Stolpe, who was there to study ancient insects trapped in amber. When he found large quantities of non-native amber on the island, he realized it must have once been an important trading center and so began archaeological excavations that would continue for almost 25 years, from 1871 through 1895.

A fragmentary second crucifix of the Birka type has survived. Their designs are so similar that archaeologists believe they were made by the same craftsman. East Funen Museums archaeologists will now contact their counterparts at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm, where the original Birka crucifix is kept. The two crosses will be compared to determine whether they were made by the same hand.

The Aunslev crucifix is the most precious of the three. The first Birka crucifix is gilded silver with much of the gilding worn off. The fragmentary second one is silver. Holm’s find is solid gold. The goldsmith shaped a thin gold wire in parallel lines and small balls called granulation. It would have been a very expensive piece, likely worn by a woman.

Christianity was introduced to Denmark via the elite so this pendant probably belonged to someone wealthy and influential. Whether that person was Christian is impossible to know since the piece was found in a field, not in a grave like the others. Wearing a crucifix could be advantageous when dealing with the already Christianized peoples south of Denmark, and even if the wearer did espouse Christian beliefs, at this stage the new faith often coexisted with the traditional one of Thor and Odin. Indeed, Christ’s expression on the crucifix is not the one of a suffering man near death, but rather of a fearless warrior akin to the Norse heroes and deities.

The pendant is now at the Viking Museum in Ladby where it will be cleaned and conserved. It will be put on display this summer.

Only play with section believed to be in Shakespeare’s hand on display

Thursday, March 10th, 2016

A folio of a play thought to be written in Shakespeare’s own hand has gone on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., alongside 50 other of the most important manuscripts and printed books related to the Bard. The Shakespeare, Life of an Icon exhibition displays pieces from the Folger’s collection plus loans from the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the British Library, the Kings, Heralds, and Pursuivants of Arms, the London Metropolitan Archives, the UK’s National Archives, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers. Many of these exhibits have never been shown in the United States before. Some haven’t been shown anywhere ever.

It’s a fascinating combination of the literary and mundane which reveal Shakespeare the man, actor and playwright. There’s Shakespeare’s copy of the contract to buy New Place, his last home in Stratford-upon-Avon, diary entries from people in the audience at his plays, the 1623 First Folio of his collected works, the only surviving letter written to Shakespeare and the only surviving copy of the first edition of Titus Andronicus which was the first Shakespeare play printed.

The only known account of Shakespeare’s death in on display as well. It’s a diary entry by John Ward, physician and vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon, written in the early 1660s, almost 50 years after the Bard’s death. He wrote: “Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.” Shakespeare was friends with playwright Ben Jonson and although we have no explicit records of a friendship with poet Michael Drayton, they traveled very much in the same circles and would almost certainly have known each other. No contemporary accounts of how Shakespeare died and of what have survived.

The play with Shakespeare’s handwriting wasn’t actually written by him alone. The Booke of Thomas More was the collaborative effort of several writers. Its main author was Anthony Munday who wrote it between 1596 and 1601. He submitted this copy (the original draft is lost) to Edmund Tilney who had the Spuds McKenzie title of Master of the Revels but the distinctly unrevelrous job of crossing out politically sensitive material. Once he was done marking the whole thing up in red pen, Munday brought in some help to rework the script. Henry Chettle is believed to have contributed first, possibly followed by Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood and William Shakespeare.

Despite all the changes, the play about Henry VIII’s Catholic Lord Chancellor who was executed for refusing to acknowledge the king was the head of the church was never printed. There are no surviving records that indicate it was ever performed. Most of the time there are no such records, so there’s no reason to assume the play was shut up in a drawer and forgotten about. It was probably staged and just not remarked up, like the vast majority of other plays from the period. The British Library’s manuscript on loan to the Folder is the only surviving copy of the play in the world.

The portion of the play thought to have been written by William Shakespeare is a three-page revision of a (fictional) speech delivered by Thomas More to anti-immigrant rioters during the Evil May Day Riots of 1517. Tilney objected to the scenes of the riots because economic hardship and potentially violent hostility to foreigners were again major issues when he wielded the censor’s pen and he didn’t want to angry up the blood, to quote Abe Simpson. In Shakespeare’s revision, therefore, the focus of Sir Thomas More’s speech was keeping the peace.

You can read a transcript of the pages here. (Scroll down to the Semi-diplomatic transcription and click Expand.) The original spelling and the formatting might make it a tad hard to read. Thimble summary: More decries the rioters’ violence, appeals to them to empathize with the foreigners, notes that their violence might beget more violence and chaos and lastly invokes the divine authority of the King which makes all violations of the King’s laws a sin against God himself.

The oratory matches the playwright’s poetic style. Because only six signatures of Shakespeare’s on four legal documents and no other writing have survived, authenticating the revision as written by Shakespeare is a challenge. With only his signed name to go on, the sample size is so small letter-by-letter comparisons can’t be definitive so the attribution is disputed by some scholars, but it’s been generally accepted since the mid-20th century. Scholars have named the contributor of the passages believed to be by Shakespeare “Hand D.”

The complete manuscript is currently being digitized. A version was published in 1911 that had photographs of some of the manuscript, but they’re blurry and not really readable. It Harley MS 7368 will be available to peruse in high resolution next month in the British Library’s Virtual Books gallery.

Shakespeare, Life of an Icon runs through March 27th at the Folger, after which the documents will move to the British Library where they will be on display as part of its Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition.

Here’s a timelapse video of the installation of the exhibition at the Folger. I like how they project elements onto the ceiling to give an immersive feel.

The glorious Mogao cave temples and the earliest printed book

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

Legend holds that in 366 A.D., a Buddhist monk named Yuezun saw a vision of a thousand Buddhas on the face of a cliff near the town of Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert of northwest China. He began digging caves into the cliff face to make his vision a reality. Who knows if there was a Yuezun who had a vision, but it’s undeniable that in the 4th century, Buddhist monks began to dig grottoes into the cliffs and they didn’t stop for a thousand years.

From the 4th to the 14th century, the monks, sponsored by politicians and wealthy donors who wished to express their religious devotion, dug 492 caves and decorated them with exquisite wall paintings, tile work and more than 2,000 clay sculptures of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and other figures. The largest sculpture is a Buddha about 116 feet high, the third largest Buddha sculpture in China, which was made during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 A.D.). In total, there are almost 500,000 square feet of painted walls and ceilings depicting Buddhist stories, sutras, donors, abstract ornament and scenes of daily life.

The enormity of the Mogao Caves (Mogao means “peerless”) complex is a testament not just to the religious dedication of the monks, but to its location along the Silk Road. The evidence of the rich cultural exchange brought to the site by the Silk Road is evident in the mixed influences of the art, and it was the demise of the Road which led to the abandonment of the caves in the 15th century. They were all but forgotten, the painstakingly carved and painted grottoes sealed with sand from the Gobi Desert.

Hundreds of years would pass before someone embraced the ancient complex again. A Daoist monk named Wang Yuanlu took it upon himself to care for the caves in around 1892. Entirely alone and unsupported, he began to clean the sand choking the temples and repair the wooden elements. In 1900, he opened a cave that had been sealed in about 1000 A.D. and discovered a massive cache of documents without parallel in human history.

Cave 17, which for obvious reasons became known as the Library Cave, held almost 50,000 manuscripts, printed texts, paintings on silk and paper, intricate embroidered silks and other textiles. The dry air of the Gobi had preserved them in exceptional condition. The documents provide a unique view of life in medieval China. There are financial ledgers, calendars, legal papers, property sale contracts, dictionaries, medical books, artworks that capture the music, dancing and games of the period. The are Confucian, Daoist and Christian texts are written in Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Hebrew, Tangut, Old Turkish and other languages spoken along the Silk Road.

The stand-out document amidst the vast archival treasure discovered in the cave is the Diamond Sutra, the world’s earliest printed dated book. A copy of an ancient Indian Buddhist text, this Chinese translation of the Diamond Sutra was made in 868 A.D., and we know this because the maker noted it in the colophon: “Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents, 11 May 868.” While there are extant woodblock printed art works on silk from the 3rd century, the earliest fragments of printing on paper date to the mid-7th century. Woodblock printing was established by the 8th century, but the Diamond Sutra is the first complete book that we have a precise date for known to survive. It is a scroll more than 15 feet long made from seven panels of paper pasted together.

Keen to preserve this great collection, Wang showed some of the texts to local government officials but they showed zero interest. In 1904, the governor order the Library Cave be resealed. Word of the find got out to archaeologists and explorers and in 1907 British archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein offered to buy thousands of the manuscripts and artworks. This is Stein’s description of Cave 17:

“The sight of the small room disclosed was one to make my eyes open wide. Heaped up in layers, but without perfect order, there appeared in the dim light of the priest’s little lamp a solid mass of manuscript bundles rising to a height of nearly ten feet, and filling, as subsequent measurement showed, close on 500 cubic feet. The area left clear within the room was just sufficient for two people to stand in.”

Wang wanted to build a Daoist temple but he had no money and since the government had told him to shove it in regards to conserving the Library Cave’s library, he went ahead and sold the documents to Stein for a pittance. The next year explorer French Paul Pelliot bought more than 10,000 pieces from Cave 17. Then came the Germans, Russians and Japanese. The collection was thoroughly picked over by the time the sales stopped with the beginning of World War I. Finally resurgent nationalism in the 1920s woke the Chinese government up and the remaining documents were moved to the National Library of China in Beijing.

The Diamond Sutra was acquired in 1907 by Stein and is now in the British Library along with more than 400 other pieces from Dunhuang. (The BL, incidentally, has spearheaded the International Dunhuang Project, an initiative to digitize images of texts, art and textiles found at Dunhuang and other archaeological sites of the Eastern Silk Road. There are almost a million images in the database as of now, and they’re not done yet.)

The Diamond Sutra hasn’t left Britain in more than a century, but that’s about to change. It will be the star of the Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The Getty Conservation Institute has been working closing with the Dunhuang Academy since 1989 to conserve the paintings on the walls of the Mogao Grottoes. To give visitors a truly immersive experience, the Getty has constructed exact replicas of three of the caves. These aren’t Hollywood sets made to look like the grottoes. The replicas are precise duplicates in shape, size and decoration. The replica paintings were done using the same pigments originally used in Dunhuang. The Getty even imported the actual clay used to sculpt the Buddhas and bodhisattvas that inhabit the caves.

The exhibition runs from May 7th through September 4th, 2016. For those four months, Los Angeles may be the closest you can get to the Gobi Desert and the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.



14 men convicted in massive museum theft ring

Friday, March 4th, 2016

Remember the bumbling idiots who stole two Chinese Qing Dynasty artifacts worth $3 million from the Durham University Oriental Museum in April of 2012? It turns out they were just the stupid tip of a large and dangerous organized crime iceberg. Fourteen of them have been found guilty of stealing and plotting to steal Chinese antiquities and rhino horns from multiple museums and auction houses. Four masterminds were convicted on Monday, which allowed the Durham police to release the news about the full scope the plot and the connection between all these cases.

This is the culmination of a four-year investigation named Operation Griffin that began with the April 2012 thefts at Durham University, but the Oriental Museum was first targeted in January of that year. An Irishman tried to use decorators’ tools to steal a Ming Dynasty ceramic sculpture from a cabinet. The glass broke and the would-be thief was caught in the attempt to flee. In February four men tried to steal a rhino head from the Norwich Castle Museum. The head was so heavy they dropped it and ran. These four were later arrested and convicted. In March another bunch of crappy criminals tried to steal a rhino libation cup from Gorringes auction house in Lewes. They got confused and took a much cheaper bamboo bowl instead and were overpowered and arrested outside the building.

This pathetic litany of failure seemed to come to an end with the April 5th theft of the two Chinese jade pieces from the Durham Oriental Museum. At least they managed to cut a hole in the wall, take the objects they meant to take and get out before the police arrived. The dumbassness kicked in when they hid the loot on wasteland next to Harle Street on the outskirts of Durham. They neglected to note the exact spot and when the team of people dispatched to retrieve the artifacts arrived 16 hours later, they were unable to find them.

We owe this marvelous failure to a local resident who, after trimming his Leylandii hedge, threw the branches over his fence, unwittingly covering up a few million dollars worth of jade. Many frantic phone calls between the thieves and their bosses ensued. The police dubbed this “Panic Day” and it was key to their understanding that these thefts were part of a major criminal conspiracy.

The two dimwits were caught by the police so the gang wrote the loot off and quickly planned to replace the stolen goods with new stolen goods. On Friday the 13th of April, four thieves broke into the Fitzwilliam Museum and stole 18 very valuable pieces of Chinese jade. After so many failures, this was the motherlode. The thefts from Durham and Cambridge combined were worth about £17 million ($24,197,000) on the legal market, but on the Far East black market they were worth far more. Police estimate they could have gone for as much as £57 million ($81,131,000). Deep-pocketed Chinese collectors have been spending millions for heritage pieces at auctions and from dealers. Many have no particular concern about how the objects were acquired and are willing to pay whatever price no questions asked.

Another succesful raid took place a year later on April 17th, 2013, when three men broke in the National Museum of Ireland Archives and stole four 100-year-old rhino heads to sell their horns on the Chinese market. Rhino horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine, and with so few rhinos left in the wild, the price of their horns is astronomical. Those eight horns on the rhino heads in the museum’s storage facility were worth an estimated £428,000 ($610,000).

Six of the men convicted for this conspiracy are connected by family or business to a community of Irish Travellers in Rathkeale, County Limerick. That’s why the gang is known as the Rathkeale Rovers. The four convicted Monday — Daniel “Turkey” O’Brien, John “Kerry” O’Brien, Richard “Kerry” O’Brien Jr. and Michael Hegarty — are all family or friends. They didn’t sully their hands doing any of the burglaries. They just coordinated things from the safety of the Traveller camps. Instead, petty criminals were hired to do their dirty work, which is why so many of these thefts ended in ridiculousness, and why a slow 15-year-old boy who had never been to secondary school was arrested for the Fitzwilliam thefts, convicted and ultimately sentenced to four months.

Police believe at least one of the artifacts stolen from the Fitzwillian was deliberately chosen as a replacement for the jade bowl lost in Durham, which means this may well have been a commissioned theft, something often bandied about after important art and artifacts are stolen, but almost never really happens. One of the 14 convicted in the plot is Chi Chong Donald Wong, an antique-watch dealer and property owner in London and Hong Kong who acted as fence and middle-man between the Rathkeale leaders and buyers in Hong Kong. Police busted him twice with plastic bags stuffed full of thousands of pounds in cash.

The police investigation found that the conspiracy reaches far beyond the borders of the UK. The gang has been stealing and smuggling rhino horn all over the world for years.

The robberies in Britain were part of a much wider picture of criminality across Europe. A year before Supt Green’s team started work, the European policing agency Europol released details of its own assessment of an organised crime group stealing rhino horn across Europe.

Europol charted dozens of robberies of rhino horn and had identified an organised crime group Irish Travellers – dubbed by the media as the Rathkeale Rovers or the Dead Zoo gang – as being behind them. A single rhino horn – valued for its (ineffective) medicinal qualities in China and the Far East – could reach €200,000 (£156,000), it said. The group was active in North and South America, South Africa, China and Australia.

For years, the gang had been targeting museums, but because there were only a few raids in each country, nobody had joined up the dots. The criminals reinvested the proceeds in property and luxury cars – much of it back in Rathkeale in Co Limerick – while continuing to live in their caravans. All of the key players were still in circulation.

The British team fed their information about telephone numbers, suspects, car number plates into the intelligence pool gathered by Europol. “It lit up their database like a Christmas tree,” a police source told The Independent.

Since the arrests, there have been no new thefts of Chinese artifacts or rhino horns in the UK. Unfortunately none of the artifacts stolen from the Fitzwilliam have been found. Police think they were quickly shifted overseas for sale to Chinese buyers and are likely gone forever.

Western Han tomb is Marquis of Haihun’s

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016

The immensely rich and well-preserved main tomb in the Western Han Dynasty cemetery near Nanchang, China, has been confirmed as that of Liu He, emperor for less than a month (from July 18th to August 14th 74 B.C.) and finally Marquis of Haihun. As they had hoped, archaeologists found a white jade seal at the waist of the human remains in the interior coffin of the tomb. The base of the seal is inscribed “Liu He.” As if that weren’t explicit enough, another jade seal was found in the tomb inscribed “Seal of Master Liu” and several of the gold coins and bamboo slips also bear his name.

The tomb is the largest and best preserved Western Han tomb ever discovered. It is packed to gills with archaeological treasure, and I don’t just mean the gold although there’s a crapload of that too. A total of 285 gold coins, in fact, each weighing about 250 grams, have been found packed in lacquer boxes. Archaeologists believe they were gifts from the emperor to Liu He. There’s also a stack of 20 gold plates, each 23 centimeters (nine inches) long, 10 centimeters (four inches) wide and 0.3 centimeters (.12 inches) thick. It’s far and away the most gold ever found in a Han Dynasty tomb.

In total more than 20,000 objects have been excavated from the tomb since digging began in 2011. If archaeologists had begun a day later, the tomb would have been emptied out by looters, its priceless archaeological information destroyed. Excavation began as an emergency response to a report that the tomb was being raided. In the process of stealing the saleable stuff — gold coins, bronze bells, bronze lamps, two million bronze coins, jade — the earliest known portrait of Confucius, 3,000 wooden tablets and bamboo slips would almost certainly have been damaged or destroyed. The tablets that have been examined so far are copies of reports the Marquis submitted to the Dowager Empress Shangguan and the Emperor Xuan. The bamboo slips haven’t been read yet, but if they’re like other examples found in Western Han tombs, they are likely medical and agricultural books.

The discovery of the tomb and its contents may well redeem Liu He for the history books. Before now, all the information on the record about him was written by the people who overthrew him 27 days after he took the throne. According to the victors, Liu He, grandson of Emperor Wu, the Han dynasty greatest’s emperor who reigned for 54 years (141-87 B.C.), and successor to his uncle, Emperor Zhao, was a spendthrift, depraved, disrespectful horndog who had all the sex, food and hunting he could during his four weeks as emperor when he supposed to be in mourning for his grandfather. When he was deposed, he was charged with 1127 counts of misconduct.

His tomb, however, shows no sign of this purported unprincipled profligacy. There is no decoration or content of any kind referring to his brief stint as emperor. As a marquis, he was allowed a grave mound no longer than 13 meters, but his was significantly shorter than that. The sheer amount of reading material in the tomb indicate that he was a man of learning. Archaeologists speculate that instead of being a drunken, gluttonous party animal, Liu He may have been a bookworm which didn’t suit the political machinations of the imperial courtiers. On the other hand, he may have just grown up a lot in the 15 years between his deposition and death.

More than 400 artifacts from the tomb have gone on display at Beijing’s Capital Museum. The show runs for just three months until June 2nd, and the museum is expecting big crowds. It’s only the second time any objects from Liu He’s tomb have been exhibited, and the first time outside of Jiangxi. When the Jiangxi Provincial Museum put 120 pieces on display last year, more than 180,000 people came to see them. The Beijing Capital Museum has crowd control plans in place. They will allow 1,000 individual visitors a day in the first week, with groups being given priority. After that, the limit will be raised to 5,000 people a day.

Matthias Buchinger: no hands, no legs, great artist

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

The art of micrography, drawings composed of lines of text so miniscule they are all but unreadable to the naked eye, is a traditional Jewish artform developed in the 9th century. One of its greatest masters did it without hands.

Matthias Buchinger was born on June 3rd, 1674, in a town near Nuremberg. He had no arms below the elbows and no legs below his upper thighs. According to an 1833 article in The Dublin Penny Journal that cites the nephew of a friend of Buchinger’s, his parents were “distressed at his unnatural form” and “concealed him as much as possible.” Other than that there’s a record of an unnamed individual matching his description at a fair sideshow in Leipzig in 1694. His first concrete entrance in the historical record comes in the first decade of the 18th century with his earliest surviving artworks.

By then he was in his 30s and was 29 inches tall. He was also a polymath genius, accomplished not just in calligraphy and drawing, but in playing multiple musical instruments, sleight-of-hand (minus hands), creating miniatures in bottles, carving wood, threading a needle, shooting and bowling, all accomplished by the dextrous use of small fin-like appendages at the ends of his arm stumps. Buchinger traveled all over Europe, from Augsburg to Amsterdam to Paris to Copenhagen to London to Belfast, displaying his many talents and tricks to amazed crowds and crowned heads alike. Poetry was written about “the Little Man of Nuremberg.”

Nobody could do him as much justice as he did himself. Here’s how he described himself in a 1724 engraving publicizing his performances.

“This is the effigies of Mr. Matthew Buchinger, being drawn and written by himself he is the wonderful little man of but 29.inches high, born without hands, feet, of thighs, June the 2. 1674. in Germany, in the Marquisate of Brandeburgh, near to Nurenburgh. He being the last of nine children, by one father and mother, viz. eight sons, and one daughter. The same little man has been married four times, and has had issue eleven children, viz. one by his first wife, three by the second, six by his third, and one by his present wife. This little man performs such wonders as have never been done by any; but himself. He plays on various sorts of music to admiration, as the hautboy, strange flute in consort with the bagpipe, dulcimer and trumpet; and designs to make machines to play on almost all sorts of music. He is no less eminent for writing, drawing of coats of arms, and pictures to the life, with a pen. He also plays at cards and dice, performs tricks with cups and balls, corn and live birds; and plays at skittles or nine-pins to a great nicety, with several other performances, to the great satisfaction of all spectators.”

Notice that his self portrait in that engraving is a micrograph. The curls of his peruke contain the complete 27th, 121st, 128th, 130th, 140th, 149th, and 150th Psalms, plus the Lord’s Prayer.

Buchinger wasn’t just tooting his own horn to draw an audience, either. Eyewitness reports matched his account. Here’s a review from James Paris, who saw him in London on March 10th, 1731:

“He did with his stumps what many could not do with their hands and feet so well as he in playing at cards, dice, ninepins, shuffel-board and roily-poly. He did cutt paper in several curious shapes, forms and figures. He writ, cast accounts, and designed very prettily; comb’d, oyl’d and powdered his perruque very well; load and discharge a pistol and did never fail of hitting the mark. He darted a sword at a mark exactly at a great distance and performed a great many other strange things.”

Said spectators included three successive German emperors and one king of Britain. He moved to England from Hanover in 1717, three years after the Elector of Hanover became King George I. Hoping to secure a lucrative appointment from the new king, he presented him with an instrument of his own invention. King George gave him a nice prize of 20 guineas, but no job, so he kept moving. He traveled through England, Scotland and Ireland, finally settling in County Cork. By the time of his death in County Cork in 1739, Buchinger was a wealthy man. He left behind a widow and at least 14 legitimate children. He was reputed to have had 70 mistresses and dozens of illegitimate children.

Sixteen of his drawings are now on display in Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s Drawings from the Collection of Ricky Jay, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Magnifying glasses are available so visitors can attempt to read the miniscule calligraphy. Even magnified it’s still almost impossible to read. How he managed to write such tiny letters without the aid of a magnifying device of his own (and we know he didn’t use them because he drew so many pieces in front of an audience) is still a mystery today.

As a renown master of sleight-of-hand and collector of historical marvels, Ricky Jay has been fascinated by Buchinger’s talent and bravado for three decades. Most of the Buchinger drawings in the exhibition are on loan from Jay’s collection. Buchinger’s work is joined by his other masters of micrography, including a portrait of Martin Luther by Johann Michael Püchler, who worked in Nuremberg when Buchinger was young and who may have taught him but certainly inspired him. The exhibition brings the art of lettering into the modern era with pieces by Jasper Johns and other contemporary artists. It runs through April 11th, 2016.

Denver Art Museum returns Koh Ker statue

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

The Denver Art Museum has returned a statue looted from the archaeological site of Koh Ker to Cambodia. The Torso of Rama was one of many sculptures from the Prasat Chen temple looted by the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian civil war in the early 1970s and sold through unscrupulous dealers to major museums and private collections in the US. The Denver Art Museum acquired it in 1986 from the Doris Weiner Gallery in New York and had it on display until last December.

A spokeswoman for the museum confirmed on Friday, 26 February, that the work had arrived in Cambodia. “As part of our own collections research, the Denver Art Museum contacted our museum colleagues in Cambodia to gather more facts on the Torso of Rama piece in the museum’s collection,” the museum’s director, Christoph Heinrich, said in a statement. “We were recently provided with verifiable evidence that was not available to us at the time of acquisition, and immediately began taking all appropriate steps to deaccession the object and prepare it for its return home. In addition to our return of this piece, during this process we have crafted a collaborative relationship with our Cambodian colleagues, and are looking forward to developing cooperative projects and programs that will benefit museum goers and collections in Denver and Phnom Penh.”

I apologize for the tiny pictures (you know this hurts me more than it hurts you), but this repatriation is such momentous news I couldn’t not post about it. The Torso of Rama was the last Prasat Chen statue in a US museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art returned the Kneeling Attendants in May of 2013. Sotheby’s returned the statue of warrior Duryodhana in December 2013. The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena returned Duryodhana’s enemy Bhima in 2014. At the same time, Christie’s bought back a statue of Balarama it had sold twice, once in 2,000, once in 2009, specifically to return it to Cambodia. Last year the Cleveland Museum returned a statue of the monkey god Hanuman. Now the Denver Art Museum, the last public holdout, has finally caved. American museums are officially no longer in the business of taking advantage of the Khmer Rouge’s brutalizing of the 10th century capital of the Khmer Empire.

That leaves only three or four statues missing from Koh Ker (exact numbers are hard to pin down). We don’t know where they are because they are almost certainly in private collections. Unfortunately that means they can remain hidden indefinitely as long as sales are arranged privately rather than through auctions or in some other manner that attracts publicity. Given what two major international auction houses and four US museums just went through, I doubt the holders of these stolen artifacts will do anything that draws attention to their loot.

Anne Lemaistre, Unesco representative to Cambodia, reached out to those shadowy figures in the wake of Denver’s return of Rama.

“To have all of the statues returned to Cambodia is something Unesco has been working hard to achieve, and we appeal to anyone who may currently have one of the remaining statues in their private collection to follow the nice gesture of the Denver museum and return it,” she said.

The return of Rama will give Cambodia the opportunity to reconstruct the figure grouping at the eastern gate of Prasat Chen. Rama and Hanuman are believed to have stood there, along with two other monkey deities locked in battle that are now in the National Museum of Cambodia. This New York Times graphic from 2013 explains where scholars believe the looted statues were originally located in the temple complex. All of the statues in that graphic are home now. :boogie:

Medieval painting saved by Reformation recycling

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

The English Reformation of the 16th century saw the widespread destruction of religious art associated with the Catholic Church. What the zealots of the Reformation missed the zealots of the English Civil War destroyed. An estimated 97% of the UK’s religious art was destroyed during the Reformation and Civil War. The few pre-Reformation church paintings that managed to survive are usually defaced or damaged. Conservators at Cambridge’s Hamilton Kerr Institute have discovered that a rare 15th century panel painting managed to survive the artmageddon in excellent condition because it was recycled during the Reformation.

The Kiss of Judas is an oil on panel work painted in bright colors with silver and gold leaf details in around 1460. It captures Judas in the act of betrayal as Roman soldiers crowd the background and Peter draws his sword. Underneath is an inscription painted in gold letters: “Jhesu mercy and eue[r] mercy Ffor in thy mercy fully trust.” The subject matter makes its survival even more remarkable since images of Judas were often gouged or scratched by faithful Catholics as well.

The painting was acquired by the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum in 2012. The seller was the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Grafton Regis, Northamptonshire. Unable to afford to keep the delicate panel painting in proper conservation conditions, the church sold it, after getting permission from a special Faculty of the Diocese of Peterborough, to the museum. The proceeds of the sale were used to repair to the roof and other features of the 13th century Norman church.

When the painting arrived at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, it was in bad condition. It was covered in dirt, darkened varnish and bat guano, so much so that the image was hard to discern. Conservators used X-ray imaging and examined it with infra-red and UV light to identify obscured details, the original pigments and which areas needed the most urgent attention. They cleaned the dirt and bat feces, removed the darkened varnish, treated the wood to keep insects from doing any more damage and applied a layer of protective varnish restoring the original vibrance of the paint and precious metals.

It was the back of the painting that provided the clue to its history. It was covered with a plywood backing board that was removed for conservation. When examining the back of the boards that make up the panel, conservators found traces of what looked like lettering. Infra-red photography revealed that it was indeed lettering and from the 16th century. It seems the excessively Catholic painting was just turned around and the back used as a board for writing. The lettering isn’t legible, but experts think it may have been the Ten Commandments because they were commonly hung on the walls of Protestant churches.

It could have just been a parsimonious choice, a practical way to reuse a painting that was no longer acceptable to the mores of the time. On the other hand, someone may have done this on purpose to keep the painting from almost certain destruction. We’ll never know. The history of The Kiss of Judas is vague. It wasn’t originally painted for St. Mary’s — it was first documented there in the early 1900s — and it may have been part of a larger piece like a rood screen. Dendrochronological analysis of the wood found that it came from a tree in the eastern Baltic that was cut down after 1423. It was painted in Britain between 1437 and 1469. One hint of its origins was a coat of arms discovered by infra-red photography hidden under the paint. The closest match to the coat of arms was traced to a branch of the Belgrave family in Leicestershire.

The painting is now on display in the Rothschild Gallery of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

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